The Legend of Hell House
the legend of hell house | john hough | richard matheson | roddy mcdowall | gayle hunnicutt | pamela franklin | based on | novel | united kingdom | haunted | haunted house | ghost | ghosts | clive revill | roland culver | peter bowles | possessed | posssession
Film: The Legend of Hell House
Director: John Hough
Writer: Richard Matheson
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Gayle Hunnicutt and Pamela Franklin
This film is one that I would get mixed up with The Haunting of Hill House growing up. It would make sense since, to my understanding, Richard Matheson wrote his novel as a darker and updated version of this haunted house story. It had been a while since I last saw this which was for a podcast that I guested on. I’m now giving it a rewatch as for my Traverse through the Threes.
Synopsis: a physicist, his wife and two mediums are hired to investigate the Belasco House, where 27 guests had inexplicably died in 1927, along with most of a team of paranormal investigators that were sent in the early 1950s.
Now we start in the room of a dying man. He is Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) and he’s called on Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill). He offers him money to prove that there is life after death by conducting an experiment at the Belasco House like the synopsis said. To preface more, this is considered the Mount Everest of haunted houses. It is commonly known as Hell House. Dr. Barrett agrees and then is escorted out by Hanley (Peter Bowles). They discuss the team Dr. Barrett will bring in and about the equipment he needs.
Then to breakdown the team from synopsis, it is featuring Dr. Barrett’s wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt). The two mediums are a young, powerful psychic named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and the survivor of the last time a team went into the house, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall).
Upon arriving at the house, they find a place that has a brooding atmosphere. They go about getting settled and tour the house. They find there is a chapel, which seems odd for a place with the history that this one does. They all go inside, except for Florence. Something prevents her from going in. The presence here doesn’t manifest immediately, but it also doesn’t take long.
It is then over their first meal that Ben recounts the history of the house. He tells of when it was built, by whom and the depraved things that happened here. It was commissioned by Emeric Belasco. There was debauchery of all kinds including sexual depravity, drug use, bestiality and even necrophilia. It is after he tells what he knows that Florence states that night she wants to do a sitting and tries to contact the spirits. Dr. Barrett thinks this a good idea and will observe.
Florence talks in a different voice than her normal one during this ordeal. No one understands the things she is saying as they don’t make a lot of sense. She does have phenomena happen that she produces ecto-plasma from her. She is known as a mental medium so this shocks everyone. She also claims to have contacted an unknown son of Emeric named Daniel. She thinks with his help, they can clean the house of the negative energy.
Staying here is much more dangerous than they realize. Ben tries to warn everyone, but he’s ignored. Florence allows ‘Daniel’ in and this causes physical harm her way. Dr. Barrett is convinced that the machine he brought in will remove the energy. This grow will have to survive long enough to prove it.
That is where I’ll leave my recap and introduction to the characters. Where I want to start is that with my is going back to my first viewing. I do believe that I caught part of it on one of the movie channels back when I was in junior high before going to school, but that would have been the extent of what I had seen. Now ahead of watching it, I read the novel this is based on. What is interesting as well is that Matheson also wrote this screenplay.
With that out of the way, the first thing I noticed from the novel to the film is that the sexuality and violence was toned down for a more brooding atmosphere. The house they used embodies that. To go along with it as well, they moved it from the United States to the United Kingdom. I didn’t mind this. It almost makes the house a character on to itself. I did appreciate that. Our characters also go off by themselves and that makes them feel vulnerable which is good. There aren’t a lot of haunted house films that do it well.
I’m going to shift gears a bit and bring in a filmmaking aspect. This moves faster than the novel and it loses a bit by doing so. We get the backstory through exposition shared by Ben. I do think more of this could be shown to slow it down. Since they’re giving us less of the visuals, I get just having it told to us. There is also less of the darker haunting elements removed. Going along with this, I like the concept that we have supernatural vs. science. The film makes you question if it is haunted or if this is Florence projecting and causing everything we see. She is even accused. Where things go are interesting here for sure.
The acting is what I’ll then pull in. This part is good. McDowall is the star and his performance is great. He seems meek in the start and the regret we see on his face as everything goes down is great. He is reserved to just surviving, but as bad things happen; he knows that he could have done more. Franklin is solid as the young psychic that is being played by the ghost. I get the idea that Ben was similar during his first visit here and that has changed him. She isn’t as prepared as she believes. Then over to Revill. My first watch, I didn’t care for him as he was stiff. That now feels like by design with this rewatch since he is a scientist. It works better for me now. Hunnicutt is also solid. We also get Culver, Bowles and even a cameo by Michael Gough that help round this out. They’re all solid in their minor roles.
I’m then going to finish out with the rest of the filmmaking. I’ve credited the setting and the atmosphere of the house. The soundtrack helps here as well. There is a brooding nature about it. We also get to hear disembodied voices. That adds an element there. We don’t necessarily get to see the ghosts and I’m almost glad we don’t. That could come off as cheesy. Seeing the brutal effects of what happens with Florence works. There is a cat attack scene that made me laugh. There is charm there though. Overall, this is a positive.
In conclusion, I feel that for me reading the novel hurt my impression of seeing this for the first time. I loved the book. I still enjoyed the film, but it was too tame for what I was hoping to see. A second view did help for sure. I enjoy the story and am glad that Matheson wrote both the source and this. The ending is interesting. There is great acting. The score of the film was amazing. It is also well-made. If anything, I think that it runs too fast. Slowing down a bit would help there. This is one of the better haunted house films. Its brooding nature and atmospheres are pluses. The backstory is quite dark as well. I’d recommend this to fans of this subgenre or of this era of filmmaking.
My Rating: 8 out of 10